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Playing Dice With The Universe

Fred: Escaping Heaven

by Bill Kte'pi
Apr 06,2005

 

Playing Dice With The Universe

Fred: Escaping Heaven

Yes, "Fred."

Okay, to recap from last time: "Fred" is the word we (the part of we that is me) came up with to describe "the process by which Religion X develops out of Religion Y, such that Religion X is sufficiently different from Religion Y to be more than simply a sect of Religion Y [presumably because of some tenet in X which is intolerable to Y]." "Intolerable" should be read neutrally there; in the real world, Christianity is a Religion X to Judaism's Religion Y, and the most obvious intolerable tenet is the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was (and remains) the Messiah and the literal Son of God. (Yeah, okay, that's at least three beliefs, but we're not talking about early Christianity today.)

We're going to make Y = Christianity here, which I almost didn't do -- since Y = Judaism, X = Christianity is the world's best-known example, I don't want to make it look like Fred is all Paul of Tarsus's fault -- but it gives me the opportunity to take advantage of this quote from Grant Morrison, from this Newsarama interview:

Imagine how diffferent Western religion would be if God had rocketed Jesus to Earth so that he could escape the destruction of Heaven...brrr...

Okay, Grant. Let's imagine that.


Now, you know what Christianity is, but just for the sake of laying some of it out, here's the (slightly edited) first few paragraphs of the Wikipedia entry:

Christianity is an Abrahamic religion based on the life and death by crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament. Although Christians generally characterize themselves as monotheistic, the one God is thought, by almost all Christians, to exist in three persons, called the Trinity. Most Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah of the Jews prophesied in the Old Testament.

Christianity encompasses numerous religious traditions that widely vary by culture, as well as thousands of diverse beliefs and sects; over the past two millennia, Christianity has been grouped into three main branches: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. It is the world's largest single religion, with over 2.2 billion followers.

Christianity is characterized by a number of reported miracles attributed by Christians to Jesus and his followers.

Modern Christianity, and especially Protestantism, and most especially Protestantism in the United States, have been marked by the interdenominational mobility of its parishioners: perhaps because there are so many denominations such that the differences are often small, perhaps because much denominationization denominization denominaliza-- fracturing was the result of historical circumstances which no longer obtain, or simply because twentieth century Americans have required that mobility and churches have accomodated them, it is very easy to -- for instance, to take an example from my family -- grow up Episcopalian, marry a Methodist, and attend a Congregationalist church.

Whether or not there is, as a result, a Protestantism -- a commonality to Protestant denominations that is at least as important as their common lack of uniquely Catholic ideas -- and whether this encompasses all Protestant denominations or only some, is a topic for another column (assuming I find a gaming angle for it). What's relevant now is that this accomodation means that "Christianity" has become very broad, encompassing many different opinions on its core material without directly pitting those opinion-holders against each other -- in fact, unlike the historical conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, parishioners of individual denominations are often unaware what the difference is between their church's teachings and those of another.

It's harder, then, to devise a religion which would begin in a Christian context and be rejected by it -- because that's what's required, really, that rejection. Christianity might not have had a life of its own -- or might have split into two or more vastly different sects very early on -- had early Jewish authorities not made it very clear that one could not be both a Christian and a Jew.

This, then, is the state of Christianity when Superman arrives -- raised a Christian in the American Midwest. We've talked about religious responses to Superman before, in one of last year's columns -- I'm not going to repeat that, because we're focusing now on the Fred phenomenon.


Superman and Christianity: early days.

As mentioned in that previous column, there would be a range of reactions to Superman -- many of them conflated with reactions to the idea or evidence of extraterrestrial life. Some people would undoubtedly -- especially at first -- assume he was a hoax. When his Kryptonian heritage was revealed, some would disbelieve it; others would read into "Kryptonian" any number of legends or folklore about aliens, blaming or crediting Superman and his people for everything from building the pyramids to eviscerating cattle.

Some would call Superman an angel or miracle-worker; some a demon, or at least a man with infernally granted powers. His powers challenge a great deal of what we understand about biology and physics -- and with neo-creationists and the intelligent design school as popular as they are, every sign that modern conventional science has made a mistake is taken as evidence for their side.

The uniqueness of man would be a subject of many sermons -- has he lost that uniqueness, that privilege? Does he retain it, in a form such that the existence of intelligent human-like life elsewhere in the universe is irrelevant? Do Kryptonians have souls? Are they the same kind of souls?

Depending on which version of the DC universe and Superman continuity we're dealing with, the general public -- and Superman himself -- might or might not know anything about Krypton itself. For our purposes, they need to know a number of things:

1: Krypton was destroyed, and is no more.

2: Superman was sent to Earth in order to survive Krypton's destruction.

3: Superman is biologically insignificantly different from other Kryptonians, independent of the effects on him of his exposure to Earth's sun and so forth: had he remained on Krypton, and had it been saved, he would have been like any other man.

In time, the majority of the world accepts that Superman is well-meaning -- even if some of them do not agree with his methods -- and incorruptible, biased by nurture in favor of American ideals, but a globalist at heart.


The Death of Superman

And then he died, at Doomsday's hands, and was resurrected.

The parallels were drawn immediately, with speculation often exaggerating the nature of Superman's death: if he hadn't been stopped, such speculation said, Doomsday could have gone on a worldwide rampage and killed millions, billions; Superman chose to die rather than allow this to happen.

Eventually, he died and did not return. In some DC settings, he may be effectively immortal -- Morrison's DC One Million stories have him living in the sun eight hundred and thirty-two centuries in the future -- but for our purposes, he at least appears to die. In one final victorious battle, saving the world once again, Superman perishes. This time, there's no coming back.

A grassroots movement begins almost immediately to have Kal-El of Earth declared a saint by the Catholic Church.


Saint Superman

The process of recognizing a deceased person as a saint in the Catholic Church is called canonization, and it's changed some here and there over the years, but it pretty much goes like this:

Five years or later after the death -- a waiting period which the Pope may waive, as he did in the case of Mother Teresa -- a local investigation is conducted into the virtues of the person in question. Assuming the bishop approves of the results, the investigation then shifts to the Vatican.

A postulator is assigned to gather all the information of the life of the deceased -- a detective, essentially. The postulator, if satisfied, will recommend to the Pope that the deceased be declared Venerable, which we gamers can think of as a first-level saint: at this point, the laity can pray to the deceased for intercession (in which the deceased petitions God on behalf of the living), and is encouraged to do so.

If the deceased was not martyred -- someone who was killed in the defense of the faith, originally the only way to become a saint -- there must be evidence of at least one miracle (in nearly every case recorded by the modern-day Catholic Church, this miracle is one of healing) credited to the Venerable after death.

Proving that a healing miracle occurred requires testimony of doctors to verify that the patient was sick or injured, that none of the medical treatments performed can account for the recovery (such treatments may have been effective but could not have worked quickly enough -- a broken leg healing in a week, for instance, is not disqualified for miracledom simply because the bone had been set), and in general that there is no medical explanation for the recovery. (There is no established set of requirements for the proof of a non-healing miracle, but it would similarly take expert testimony that mundane explanations were insufficient.) Further, the recovered patient, family members, and anyone else who is appropriate must testify that the Venerable -- and in most cases only the Venerable -- was prayed to for a miracle.

(This is a tricky position: if you pray to the Venerable Superman, and he is not in fact capable of miracles, your prayers will not be answered -- and arguably you may be guilty of the sin of idolatry, although the Church is lenient about extending the benefit of the doubt in cases like this -- but if you don't pray to the Venerable Superman and no one else, he will never become a saint. You might consider that there are, somewhere out there, martyrs to the causes of their would-be saints.)

"Second-level saints" (okay, Blesseds -- the process is beatification) are granted a feast day celebrated on the calendar of their home diocese (sometimes a whole country, it depends on the circumstance; the desire is to limit feast days to areas where they would be relevant).

After demonstrating one more miracle, the Blessed may be declared a saint. A saint's feast day is celebrated universally.

It used to take more miracles, but the ability of science to prove more and more, and the general feeling in the Church, has whittled the number down in the last few decades -- a decision that satisfied both the liberal "Vatican II Catholics" (because it means the Church feels less pressure to declare miracles) and the conservative traditionalists (as it made it easier to declare saints, something many Catholics are otherwise less comfortable with than they were a century ago).

A saint should have led a life which the laity should feel inspired to emulate -- it helps if they were especially mystical in life, performing miracles or experiencing visions -- and are prayed to as intermediaries who, as mentioned above, petition God on behalf of mortals in specific cases.

So, in our timeline under discussion, here's what happens:

Superman dies, for good. The Pope is pressured to waive the waiting period, but delays, citing Superman's previous apparent death and the possibility that he could come back again.

Five years go by, with all the hoopla you could expect occurring in the meantime: hundreds of women claiming to have given birth to Superman's love child or to be his secret wife, men claiming to be Superman transformed or somehow reincarnated, self-proclaimed prophets and heralds of the Risen Superman.

Superman fails to come back to life, and the proceedings begin.

After much discussion, both public and internal, it's decided that Superman had no local diocese, but was truly a citizen of the world (although the strongest support comes from American Catholics). There is a great deal of debate over whether he was Catholic, mind you -- certainly there is no record of his baptism, but there wouldn't be, under the name "Superman." Because veneration and beatification can be undone (sanctification, on the other hand, is infallible), the Pope makes an announcement following Christmas Eve Mass that the issue of Superman's Catholicism will be put aside for the time being, and readdressed should it prove relevant.

Traditionalists are outraged by this. Non-Catholic religious leaders, for that matter, are not terribly happy about it: the anti-Catholic fanatic fringe among Protestant fundamentalists in the United States and Scandinavia makes various threats and speeches about the Pope's perceived effort to hitch his wagon to Superman's star.

Those who knew Superman best -- or, rather, were known by the public to know Superman well -- are long since dead, from Lois Lane and Lana Lang to Jimmy Olsen and Perry White. Batman issues a public statement -- his first in decades -- offering the opinion that Superman was a good man, but no more than that; no one, though, is sure whether this Batman is the same as the original Batman or not.

Among the celebrity witnesses interviewed by the Roman Curia are Wonder Woman, the god Odin, representatives of the Green Lantern Corps, Superwoman, Superboy, Grodd III, and a man who claims to be possessed by the spirit of Boston Brand, and to have been present at Superman's second death.

After Superman's veneration, the proceedings are put on hold while the Third Vatican Council is called to discuss other, unrelated, matters (although there is a good deal of speculation that many Cardinals will talk about the Superman case in private). The Pope is matter of fact about his hope that taking the case out of the public spotlight for a time will dim interest in it, and allow it to be pursued as a purely Catholic matter.

In the meantime, prayers to Superman are common -- if there's such a thing as a trendy not-yet-saint, Kal-El is it, and the evidence is everywhere from sermons to the names of new churches (something the Church frowns on) to S-symbol rosary beads. A new superhero, Krypton Man, claims his powers come from God through Superman -- that he prays to Superman every morning, for his powers to be granted, and that the fact that they are should be evidence of a Super-miracle.

The popular consensus -- among Catholics and non-Catholics, Superman-supporters and their opponents -- is that Superman is a lock for sainthood.


The First Church of Superman

Shortly after the Third Vatican Council, the Pope -- whom many thought was sympathetic to the Superman cause, albeit cautious -- died; the new Pope made it clear that he considered the burden of proof on the Superman supporters to be quite heavy. While he was not quite hostile to the cause, he was colder to it; many theorized it was because he was born after Superman's public debut: he had no memory of a world before Superman.

When the investigation resumed, over nine thousand miracles submitted for consideration by the Curia were rejected, most of them in batches. Even ardent Superman supporters understood this: with a case so high-profile, a lot of kooks were going to be attracted. No one doubted many of those miracle reports were falsified, misunderstood, or otherwise justly rejected.

But the fact that all of them were rejected so quickly didn't sit well with many American Catholics, and by now the cause had found adherents in South and Central America as well.

The Superman case took thirty years to settle, by which time an entire generation of his contemporaries had died. Krypton Man retired from crimefighting and devoted himself more fully to the cause, although this consisted primarily of public appearances. Batman disappeared into a private war in Gotham. Wonder Woman removed herself from the world of Man, as the Green Lanterns left Earth.

The clergy of the First Church of Superman -- the largest Catholic congregation in Metropolis -- declared the Pope an antipope: they removed themselves from communion with Rome, declaring that the Roman authorities lacked authority and the blessing of God, as had happened several times in the Catholic past -- effectively, they seceded from mainline Catholicism. Although only a small number of antipopes -- and accusations thereof -- are remembered by history, a number of small Catholic movements have occurred in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in which a group of Catholics have declared the current Pope -- and his successors -- invalid, and elected their own. Without exception, these movements have been small, their actions a ripple in the great lake of Catholicism as a whole.

But the First Church of Superman is an exception. Within a few years -- long enough for people to be sure they aren't allying themselves with some nutjob suicide cult and that the Roman Church isn't going to change its position -- churches in other cities have joined the FCS, and for a time, the FCS is the fastest-growing religion in the United States and Mexico.

Eventually the "First" is dropped: the original parish becomes the Metropolis Church of Superman, and "Christian Church of Superman" suffices as the umbrella name for the institution to which various local churches belong. The Christian part is emphasized in the name to differentiate the CCS from the various Superman-worshipping cults -- despite the criticism of some Christian authorities, the CCS sees itself as venerating Superman as a saint, no more and no less ... but there are some early mentions of him as "a saint unlike other saints."

But Superman is popular among more than just Catholics -- and soon, a number of Protestants of various denominations, as well as many Americans who previously didn't consider themselves religious, want to join. Some of them are willing to convert to Catholicism; many are not.


The First Star City Council

Some few decades after the First Church of Superman's reorganization as the Christian Church of Superman, an ecumenical council is held in Star City to address numerous concerns which have accumulated, to wit:

1: The affirmation or amendment of Catholic doctrine.

2: The canon of saints.

3: The nature of Superman.

Along with various organizational issues, responses to post-schism developments in mainline Catholicism, and so forth.

The Council lasts for three years, including two breaks of several months, and the outcome causes many to leave but many more to join, over the next decade:

1: The bulk of traditional Catholic doctrine is adopted and affirmed, but many of those points least acceptable to Protestants are left out: the immaculate conception and the assumption of the Virgin Mary; the position of Pope (the current Pope steps down and becomes a Cardinal); and, most relevantly, the doctrine of the intercession of saints.

2: With a few exceptions, Protestantism is hostile to the idea of saints interceding on mortals' behalf -- in the day to day life of an average parishioner, saints and the confessional account for the most drastic differences between Catholics and Protestants (well, and Catholics have better food). The Star City Council abandons the entire canon of saints -- they don't dismiss miracles, and don't discount that many miracles may have been performed by the Catholic saints; but intercession is tossed out the window.

3: Superman is officially recognized as a type of Christ.

In theological typology, a type is a person, event, situation, etc., that prefigures some part of one which will come: Moses's need to be hidden as a baby to avoid the wholesale slaying of babies makes him a type of Christ; the Flood experienced by Noah is, to some, a type of the destruction written of in Revelation; and so on. That thing which is prefigured by a type is generally called an antitype; i.e. is Isaac is, by being prepared for sacrifice by his father, a type of Christ, then Christ is an antitype of Isaac.

So what does this mean for our young church?

Well, that's the subject of much discussion after the Council.


Like Christ, but not Of Christ

The language of the Council is carefully vague, clearly bestowing upon Superman a theologically unique and privileged position, associating him with Christ without being clear on what, exactly, that means -- other than making him, as some call him, "the sole saint," the one non-divine being to whom it is acceptable to pray for intercession and favor. Superman medallions are worn alongside crosses, and are displayed in churches. There is talk of priests wearing capes, either on a regular basis or for particularly formal occasions -- the practice never catches on except in isolated parishes.

The Church is no longer tied to the Catholicism whose rulership it rejected; Protestants and others join, and it takes less than a century for "I was raised in it" to become the most common answer to "when did you join the Christian Church of Superman?"

As it grows, it becomes more formal: seminaries are set up, and Church-sponsored colleges, following the practice of the Catholic Church from which the CCS descended. Formal, accredited, degree-granting seminaries and other programs lead to the almost inevitable development of CCS-specific theology, and the "Superman as type" question is one which comes up again and again.

Over the years, you have various schools of thought advanced:

1: That Superman's nonhumanity is an essential characteristic in explaining his relationship to God. As Man is elevated over the animals, with the gifts of the soul and the moral sense, Superman is elected as the only surviving member of his race: for God so loved the Earth that he destroyed Krypton to give us Superman.

2: That Superman is a son of God, but not in the sense Jesus is: unlike Jesus, who was conceived by God and who is God, Superman was adopted by God -- an event which occurs concurrent with his journey from Krypton to Earth. Like Elijah, like Enoch, Superman is chosen by God and enjoys a special relationship with him -- indeed, as he had died before, his final death may have been critically different from ordinary mortal deaths.

3: That Superman was the Second Coming of Christ, born on a broken world and sent here to save humanity. This is the closest thing the CCS has to a heresy.

4: That Krypton was Heaven. That isn't the initial formulation of this school -- first, theologians begin to privilege Kryptonians as separate and distinct from all other alien races as supernaturally important. Just as God came to Earth in the form of Jesus and found himself specially vulnerable -- able to feel pain and hunger and grief, capable of dying, things which would not be true of Him in Heaven -- Superman came to Earth and enjoyed special invulnerability, in such ways as he would not have on Krypton.

He's neither Christ nor antichrist. He isn't part of the Trinity, but just as the Virgin Mary enjoys a special relationship with the divine in the Catholic formulation, so too of Superman in what eventually becomes the dominant CCS theology.

Revelation is reinterpreted to refer to the destruction of Krypton, which is associated with Heaven in a way similar to the relationship between Jesus and God: although Jesus is God, the death of Jesus was not the death of God (and neither was it theologically insigificant). Krypton was Heaven, but its destruction was not the destruction of Heaven; it was, rather, a sacrifice on the part of God -- or, if you like, on the part of Heaven itself, in some inconceivable way -- which was necessary to the creation of Superman, and hence to the example he set on Earth and the truths his life revealed. For God so loved the world that he ruined Heaven.

This is now a Christianity with no end of the world to look forward to: no Second Coming (although Superman was not the Second Coming of Jesus, his existence, it's decided, fulfilled the obligations thereof), no Armageddon, nothing. It already happened, in a galaxy far away.

It's a Christianity that, in the eyes of its theological neighbors, isn't a Christianity at all: Superman has a much more prominent role than Jesus does, and theological notions of the soul and salvation, of original sin and morals, continue to develop and deviate in ways small and large from what we might call a mainstream Christian norm.

So, you know, it's a Fred.

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